With the 2019 season upon us, beat writer Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions defense and special teams.
It’s always an interesting exercise to look back at last year’s season preview and see how things have changed. In this space a year ago, I wrote that the Lions had the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in football, a claim that never materialized for a variety of reasons.
This year, expectations are decidedly lower up front. The Lions have one difference maker on their defensive line in Trey Flowers, and as good a player as he is, he’s never had more than 7.5 sacks in a season. Flowers is more than just a pass rusher, of course. He’s an excellent run defender and more disruptive than the statistics show. But the Lions don’t have much in the pass rushing department as a whole.
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New additions Danny Shelton and Nick Williams should join Flowers in the starting lineup. Shelton has been a sturdy run defender throughout his career and will play primarily at nose tackle this fall. Williams is coming off a six-sack season with the Chicago Bears, but prior to 2019 was considered a journeyman role player. Da’Shawn Hand and Romeo Okwara figure to get the bulk of the playing time off the bench, with Okwara backup up Flowers and contributing in pass-rushing situations and Hand playing inside when injuries don’t keep him off the field.
The Lions have a linebacker-centric defense, and enough versatility at the position that players’ roles may vary on a game-by-game, or even series-by-series, basis. While they’ll probably play three linebackers a majority of the time, Jamie Collins, Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones and Jahlani Tavai form the nucleus of a potentially solid group whose biggest weakness is in pass coverage.
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Collins signed to replace Devon Kennard, but he won’t be limited to the left outside linebacker spot. Expect to see him line up as a stack linebacker on some downs and play off the edge on others. Jones is the ideal candidate to play as an edge-setting run defender when Collins roams the middle of the field. He’s been dependable in his two years in Detroit, but isn’t known as a playmaker.
Davis, the Lions’ first-round pick in 2017, is the wild card of the group. He flashed as a pass rusher two seasons ago and will deliver his share of big plays, but he’s also limited in coverage and has a tendency to play too fast at times. If the Lions can harness his ability, this unit has the potential to overachieve. Jalen Reeves-Maybin can help in pass coverage and Reggie Ragland is another big-bodied backup who should see time in a reserve role.
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The Lions moved on from the two best players in their secondary, Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs, for non-football reasons, and they’ll enter this season with three new starters in a secondary that comes loaded with both questions and upside.
Desmond Trufant replaces Slay as the Lions’ No. 1 cornerback, but he’s a placeholder for rookie Jeff Okudah. Okudah seems destined to play as a backup early in the season, but he has the size, mental approach and physical ability to be a lockdown corner in time. Justin Coleman will play primarily out of the slot, while last year’s fifth-round pick, Amani Oruwariye, took the majority of the first-team reps at right cornerback this summer. Oruwariye has ideal size and length, but he played sparingly as a rookie and will share snaps with Okudah this fall.
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The Lions have played a lot of man-to-man coverage the last two seasons under Matt Patricia, and that likely will continue in 2020. Duron Harmon has a nose for the ball at the free safety position, while Tracy Walker is a talented third-year player who’s covering tight ends and playing as a robber underneath. The Lions relegated Walker to second-team duties much of the spring, and if that continues in the regular season, Will Harris will slide into the starting role. Jayron Kearse should contribute as a big run defender in time, but he’s suspended for the first three games of the season.
The Lions are on their third special teams coordinator in as many seasons, and are breaking in a new punter as well. Jack Fox survived a camp battle with Arryn Siposs to win the punting job. Fox spent part of last season on the practice squad, but has never played in an NFL game. He has a hammer for a leg, but had bouts of inconsistency in training camp.
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Aside from punter, most of the rest of the special teams units return intact. Don Muhlbach is back for his 17th season at long snapper after surviving his own training camp battle with Steve Wirtel. Matt Prater is a trusted field goal kicker with more range than most of his peers. And Jamal Agnew should handle kick- and punt-return duties again. Agnew has four return touchdowns in his career.
New coordinator Brayden Coombs has changed punt protection schemes and been labeled “aggressive” but some of his players. The Lions should be solid in coverage as they return top special teams contributors Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew and C.J. Moore from 2019, and added Tony McRae and Elijah Lee to the mix.
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